Sunday, June 23, 2013

The character behind the god - reviewing Man of Steel

In a superhero movie, you either destroy a little town in small-town America to show how grounded your story is in everyday life and what is at stake in the relatable lives of the earth&salt-people, like in Thor, or you opt to destroy New York City to show that even the mightiest cities might fall, like the Avengers did. Superman, of course, because he is super, does both. Smallville, your stand-in little Kansas town full of honest-to-god-farmers and workers, and Metropolis, the New-York-stand-in, get almost entirely destroyed in a battle that can only be described as excessive. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 
This scene is not CGI. Beliiiiiiiiieve me.

Remaking Superman was, after the desaster of "Superman returns", the only sensible way to go, and that movie did show, after all, that simply retelling the old Richard Donner story doesn't really work anymore. It also doesn't make much sense to go down the exact same path as Marvel did and create a real comic-book universe, since why watch this if I have the original? With Christopher Nolan as producer and writer of the screenplay, the route this was going to take was clear from the start, and combined with Zack Snyder's unbeatable talent for visuals, one thing was clear before the intro was shown on the screen - the product would be vastly different from what we have seen before. 
Full of themselves.
What's the big problem of Superman stories? Superman is basically just that, super. Morally impregnable, invulnerable and capable of pretty much everything. That also makes him boring as hell. The only thing that can become dangerous is Kryptonite, and frankly, after five Superman movies with Lex Luthor using Kryptonite and the entire unbearable Smallville series, this plot has become a bit thin. It also wouldn't be exactly Nolan's nor Snyder's style to use a wacky evil genius like Lex Luthor as enemy of Superman. It was to be expected that they'd ground Superman in reality a little bit more, which is exactly what they did. 
Not in this movie.
And here we enter the big problem. If you love the old comic Superman who rescues kittens from trees and Lois Lane from every conceivable danger before he warns some reckless driver to adhere to the speed limit - then you will hate the movie. Seriously, Snyder and Nolan don't even try to preserve the old Superman. For me, that's no problem at all. I still like the dark touch and am not tired of it, like MovieBob is, for example. So, if you don't like Nolan's take on superheroes and want to see more of Marvel's vision - stay away from this movie, because it will give you no joy at all. 

For all others, the movie offers some really, really good stuff, and a good load of stupid scenes that need to be in there because blockbuster. We'll get to them in a moment. So, what did they do? At the very core, they asked themselves what effect a "realistic" Superman would have. And the answer could only be the one that Jor-El, played by Russel Crowe, gives us right in the beginning: He will be a god to us. And this is a very unsettling thought. There are no checks and balances for a being like Superman, and he only isn't a menace to mankind because he was raised in urban Kansas by Jonathan and Martha Kent. 
Obvious, but perfect casting.
Since the backstory of Superman can be seen as already known, the movie only highlights the important aspects of it in flashbacks (his urge to help, the need for secrecy) and sends him on a journey to find his roots pretty fast, which he does only a step ahead of the military, who discovered an old Kryptonian spaceship in Antarctica. The sequence in which journalist Lois Lane stumbles upon Kal-El (really, he isn't Clark, he's Kal-El from the start) and is immediately in on the secret shows us that this movie will do essential stuff differently. After being informed by the Jor-El hologramm that he is in fact Superman (paraphrasing here), he tests out his abilities. 

Beliiiiiiiieve me, I'm a hologram of the dead father you never met.
And oh boy, the abilities! I loved the raw physicality of it. He jumps hundreds of meters and the air, falls down and smashes whole hills to pieces. When he jumps, the ground breaks from the sheer force, which happens especially when he takes off (a great effect), and when he accelerates, there's a sonic boom. This sense for physics comes even more into play once Kal-El battles General Zod and his legion of bad guys, when they punch each other over the length of miles and their hits create shockwaves that level whole city blocks. The whole excess of the movie's final 40 minutes, which was much critized (for example by Red Letter Media) has a clear purpose: it drives home the notion that gods are doing battle on the grounds of mortals here. And it works. The Kryptonians are terrifying as they fight each other in Smallville and Metropolis, which are increasingly reduced to rubble.
Rubble? What rubble?
The choice to make General Zod and his survivors the villains of the movies was a really clever one, too. They're alien in their motives and appearance and really drive home the point that they are superior and fight for a terrible goal. It also gives Superman a real backstory. Krypton isn't just dead so the little Kal-El can get to earth, but there's a reason for it (which in turn drives General Zod) and a whole war of ideas that is continued on Earth. When Superman finally kills Zod with his bare hands, it is clear that the world has defintely changed, and Superman has, too. 
Great casting.
Of course, the movie is not without flaws. Lois Lane, although cleverly written and cast, is mostly just there, to the point of sheer senselessness. She's the main vehicle of the story and serves as a stand-in for the audience to whom expositionary dialogue is delivered. Let's hope that she gets a more meaningful role in the inevitable sequel. The rest of the Daily Planet staff is only there to get in danger during the battle and give a perspective as to how thousands of people die as a result of the Kryptonians doing battle, but you can't really care about them, underdeveloped as they are. The same is true, surprisingly, for the Kents. It seems that some of their scenes were left behind on the cutting room floor, since Martha Kent is just a mystery to me (a really weird character) and Jonathan Kent's death comes pretty strange and somehow forced. Plus, the dialogue is pretty cheesy, which here in Germany isn't exactly helped along by a really wooden performance of the voice actors.

Out of the way, I'm the title character!
But I really liked the film nonetheless. There were so many really good ideas in this, especially the whole new background for Krypton, that I wished several times the film would be thrice as long so the producers had the time to develop all these ideas properly instead of clubbing them into the movie with painfully obvious dialogues or just brushing the themes, passing by. So, if you don't have a problem with a more grounded Superman who doesn't rescue kittens from trees but humanity from a Krypton invasion with not much thought of collateral damage, this movie is for you. If you want the campy Superman from the Action Comics, stay away.

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